How Jim Harbaugh's Departure from Michigan Could Impact the Wolverines, Ohio State and the Rest of College Football

By Garrick Hodge on January 25, 2024 at 11:05 am
Jim Harbaugh and Sherrone Moore
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A move seemingly months in the making finally came to fruition on Wednesday.

After nine seasons at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh opted to return to the NFL, reaching an agreement with the Los Angeles Chargers to be their next head coach.

Most of the fans in Ann Arbor wished Harbaugh well and thanked him for their first championship since 1997. Likewise, Ohio State supporters in Columbus ushered Harbaugh out with reminders of Michigan’s sign-stealing scandal that spanned three seasons and the fact a Wolverines head coach hasn’t finished his tenure with a winning record against the Buckeyes since 1994. All while conducting their hisses into a melody that probably resembled the tune of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” considering Ohio State has now fallen to the Wolverines for three straight seasons. 

Either way, Harbaugh’s departure will likely have an impact on both teams going forward, considering the magnitude of college football’s greatest rivalry. When Nick Saban abruptly retired from Alabama, we broke down how his absence could impact Ohio State and the rest of college football. Two transfer additions of Caleb Downs and Julian Sayin later — did it ever. 

With that, we’ll take a gander at breaking down how Harbaugh’s great escape to Los Angeles may impact Ohio State, Michigan and the rest of the country. 

Who replaces Harbaugh? (It’s probably obvious)

It would be a surprise if the Wolverines do anything other than promote offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore. If Michigan did go outside for the hire, coaches such as Brian Kelly, Lance Leipold and Chris Klieman have all been connected to the job. 

But it’s probably only a matter of when, not if, Moore is promoted.

We’ll pause for a brief moment to allow you to get whatever third-base jokes that are boiling deep within out of your system.

Michigan may have to wait a week to officially name Moore its next head coach, though, as the University’s Standard Practice Guide for employment requires a job to be open for at least seven days before being filled unless a waiver is granted due to “legitimate business needs.” You’d think the urgency of having to hire a replacement quickly to avoid parts of the roster getting poached similar to Alabama would fall under that guideline, but alas. (We’ll get to that later). 

Harbaugh has often spoken glowingly of Moore throughout his Michigan tenure. To Moore’s credit, he proved deserving of that praise by going unscathed during his brief tenure as Michigan's interim coach while Harbaugh served a three-game suspension from the Big Ten following the Wolverines’ sign-stealing scandal. Two of those wins came against top-10 opponents in pressure-cooker, trial-by-fire situations. 

But a devil’s advocate would argue Moore has also never been a college head coach in his coaching career at any point and had the benefit of having Harbaugh help gameplan during the week for all three of the games he served suspensions for. Additionally, one of Moore’s biggest strengths as a coach is his ability as a playcaller, but the amount of college head coaches who are also full-time playcallers and successful seems to be dwindling. Even Ryan Day just gave that up

Even if Michigan doesn't lose a single player to the transfer portal between now and the end of the spring window, the Wolverines will still be without a significant amount of key players on both sides of the ball that contributed to their championship. The schedule doesn't get any easier in 2024 either, with tilts against Texas, USC, Washington, Oregon and Ohio State looming. 

Could Moore have a successful tenure in Ann Arbor? Certainly. Is it a guarantee? Far from it.

How many assistants follow Harbaugh to the NFL? 

There’s no shortage of speculation that Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter and special teams coordinator/safeties coach Jay Harbaugh will follow Jim Harbaugh to the Chargers. The greater battle for Michigan will be trying to retain director of strength and conditioning Ben Herbert, who has been instrumental in the development of Michigan’s players. Who knows if there will be others that bolt/aren’t retained? 

Assuming Minter departs Ann Arbor as expected, Moore faces his first key hire to find his replacement. 

Will he promote from within? Perhaps someone like Steve Clinkscale could be a good fit, considering he already boasts co-defensive coordinator in his title in addition to his responsibility coaching defensive backs. 

If he goes outside, someone like former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard would make a lot of sense. You can’t rule out Moore poaching someone from John Harbaugh’s staff in Baltimore, either, as Michigan has previously done with Mike Macdonald. Minter also had strong Baltimore ties, spending four seasons with the Ravens before joining Vanderbilt as its defensive coordinator for one season. Harbaugh then hired him in 2022 to replace Macdonald. 

What’s the transfer portal carnage from Michigan’s roster? 

That’s the million-dollar question.

With the Michigan job changing hands, Wolverines players will now have a 30-day window to enter the transfer portal. For context on the utter chaos that can bring to a program, following Saban’s retirement, 11 Crimson Tide players opted to transfer (that’s not including the ones already in the portal before the announcement).

Maybe a mass exodus won't follow in Ann Arbor. Moore's presumed hire should help bring some continuity to the program. The academic calendar is also already working against potential transfers enrolling at another institution for the spring semester, with many institutions having already reached their deadline to drop classes. However, that probably won't stop them from trying to find workarounds if necessary. 

At least some attrition is probably unavoidable, though, even if it waits until the spring portal window begins in April. As we mentioned earlier, a good chunk of the premier talent on Michigan’s 2023 squad has either run out of eligibility or declared for the NFL Draft. But this is still a talented roster with plenty of players that would be desirable to other Power Four programs. 

Will Johnson, Kenneth Grant, Donovan Edwards, Colston Loveland, Mason Graham and Rod Moore are just a handful of the names that would receive significant interest elsewhere should they opt to transfer.

It’s hard to imagine any of those guys transferring coming off a national championship. It's even harder to envision any Wolverine player potentially ending up at Ohio State. Even if a player is bolting a school, it’s rare athletes from Ohio State or Michigan transfer to the rival school after a healthy dose of disdain for the other is integrated into them the day they set foot on campus. But crazier things have happened in this whacky sport.

Just as they did for Alabama’s players, other schools will be watching the portal with vested interest now that Michigan athletes have had their transfer window reset, which could potentially weaken the Wolverines for 2024.

How does this impact the pending NCAA investigations? 

This is an even murkier question to answer than possible transfer portal attrition.

Michigan is currently under investigation by the NCAA for two separate incidents, the first being Cheeseburgers in Dead Periods and the other involving the newest Cameo celebrity Connor Stalions’ sign-stealing scandal. (No, seriously. He’s on Cameo now charging $75 for a personalized video. What a time we live in.)

The NCAA could easily label Michigan as a repeat offender if it chooses to and impose harsh sanctions. Had Harbaugh stayed, various reports emerged after his second suspension in 2023 that he could be facing a lengthy suspension for 2024 as well depending on what the investigation yielded. 

Yet, college sports’ governing body has slowly been moving away from the model of harshly punishing institutions/players for the sins of past coaching administrations. NCAA president Charlie Baker probably didn’t do his infractions committee any favors by proclaiming Michigan won its national championship “fair and square.”

Though assuming Moore is hired, he served a one-game university self-imposed suspension himself during Michigan’s season opener for the impermissible contact allegations during the COVID-19 dead period and has been employed at the school for the entire duration of the Wolverines’ sign-stealing operation. 

Will the NCAA give Michigan what essentially equates to a slap on the wrist with Harbaugh gone, or will it drop the hammer? It’ll be fascinating to watch unfold.

Does this help Ohio State?

In short? Yes. To what extent is uncertain, though.

In the interim, even if Harbaugh had stayed, Ohio State was likely going to be favored against Michigan this November. The Buckeyes have brought back many core pieces of their roster while simultaneously bringing in multiple impact additions, including Caleb Downs, Will Howard and Quinshon Judkins. They’ll likely either be the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the preseason poll because of it. 

The Wolverines may be coming off three straight Big Ten titles and a national championship, but they’re staring heavy roster turnover right in the face even without the additional transfer window now open. Factor in a potential crucial defensive coordinator hire and a much harder schedule for Michigan in 2024, and it may be difficult for the Wolverines to qualify for the inaugural expanded 12-team playoff, let alone repeat as conference champions. 

There’s no question 2024 is a make-or-break year for Ryan Day, and losing to Michigan with this roster for a fourth straight time will not be tolerated. But there’s also no reason to think they shouldn’t finally best their rivals given the makeup of both teams. 

Long term, often the devil you know can be better than the devil you don’t, with Harbaugh fitting the description of the former here. But even if Moore already has a head-to-head win over Ryan Day, he’s yet to run his own program. Perhaps Moore will find a way to achieve sustained success in Ann Arbor, but despite Harbaugh carrying a suitcase full of baggage, he’s proven to be a successful college at the NFL and collegiate levels. Not too many people in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center will be sad to see him go and see their rival coached by somebody else.

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